Colossal. Behemoth. Gigantic. These are a few words which easily roll off the tongue when speaking about the Xiaomi Mi Max; the 6″ monster smartphone that Xiaomi released earlier this year.
It’s so big that its size is probably the entry and departure point for any discussion you’re likely to have about it. Whereas most will look at the iPhone 7 Plus and see a large phone with practical utility, Xiaomi has a harder fight on its hands.
Can you truly justify a phone that’s more tablet than smartphone? Xiaomi doesn’t seem to think so, and that’s why when one purchases the Mi Max and gets the box, the words ‘Mi Max is the new big’ sprawl out on the front in red letters.
A question stands, then – is the Mi Max a gentle giant, or is this a colossal performer best left on display at the nearest circus? After a few weeks with the device, we’re ready to declare our verdict.
The Mi Max brings with it a modest set of specifications which place the device in the upper mid-range; while a Snapdragon 650 SoC powers the show, users can expect 3GB of RAM, 32 or 64GB of expandable internal storage, a 16-megapixel primary shooter and 5-megapixel selfie camera, and a 1080p display with a 342ppi pixel density.
Ah, it didn’t take us long to get here.
In many ways, Xiaomi’s Mi Max is the equivalent of the Redmi 3 put under a steam roller.
As this is naturally a large device, space isn’t at a premium; this is a phablet which sprawls out in the hand and works to justify its metal design language.
Despite its ungainly proportions, the Mi Max is actually quite a handsome device with a paradoxically subtle design language. With a stark front panel devoid of personality – apart from a wonderfully symmetrical speaker and camera array at its top – the Mi Max gives way to a beautiful metal chamfer which runs around the phone.
A little like the rings of Saturn, this is what gives the device its persona – wonderfully clicky buttons are mounted on the right-hand side, while a speaker grill can be found on the bottom adorning the Micro-USB port like jewelry. On the left-hand side lies a SIM slot, while the top leaves room for a headphone jack.
Truth be told, the Mi Max’s design leaves one to appreciate its strengths as a tablet more so than its power as a phone. As a point of comparison, the device is closer in feel to an iPad Mini than it is to an iPhone.
The closest juncture where that point is rendered moot is the rear panel, wherein Xiaomi opts for a more traditional layout; one will find a round fingerprint scanner on the rear of the device which is altogether well-placed; my index finger could reach it comfortably, but your mileage may vary.
Apart from the Mi logo at the bottom, the left-aligned camera and flash module is the sole measure which graces a relatively sparse offering. Something I’m left to puzzle over is the addition of a small camera bump around the lens element – a surely needless addition considering the breadth of space Xiaomi are left to play with here.
All in all, the Mi Max isn’t an unattractive phone, but it has none of the refined beauty the Mi Mix or Mi 5 brought to the table. If anything, what the device truly lacks is its own character – and that’s what leads me to my next point.
I’ve spoken about Xiaomi’s MIUI skin plenty of times over, and I devoted a small segment of our weekly podcast, Bandwidth Blog On Air, to take charge of skinned Android wherein our Editor Theunis held the banner of stock Android.
I’m glad I didn’t refer to the Mi Max in that debate, because here’s an argument I didn’t get to express; skinned Android, in this case, actually holds back the Mi Max from its true potential.
I don’t mean that in the sense that MIUI needs to grow (which, well it does) or that new features need to be added (because they do). I make the point because considering the Mi Max’s utterly huge footprint, MIUI brings nothing new to the table.
With the Mi Max, you’re getting the same skin and operating system you’ll get on the Mi Note, Mi Mix, Mi 5, Mi 5s, Redmi, Redmi Note… you name it. There’s not a hint of difference – and here my crucial point emerges; where’s the stylus support?
For a phone which could have been the everyman’s answer to the Galaxy Note (for size purposes) the Mi Max does relatively little with its biggest asset; its size.
Sure, I’ll grant you that the device’s display looks great in full HD, and that MIUI is a treat for its enlarged visual splendor. There’s even a one-handed mode and a shortcut menu, but it feels like more of a cop-out than something that actually makes the Mi Max’s size worthwhile.
I’ll also concede that I’m possibly disgruntled after being in the fortunate position of having multiple Xiaomi phones on my desk this year – but what I won’t back down on is my verdict that Xiaomi have wasted an enormous – get it? – opportunity with the Mi Max.
I’m glad I closed on that note, because not everything with the Mi Max is left uncapitalized on. In fact, the device is a great example of what a talented manufacturer can do with a modest set of specifications.
You’ll be remiss for thinking the Mi Max comes equipped with a heavy-duty Snapdragon 820 processor, because performance is generally buttery. The device performs without complaint, and further doesn’t get overly toasty when taxed beyond reason – a fault I’ve found with flagship Xiaomi phones such as the Mi 5.
Considering the weight of MIUI atop Android, that’s always a big accomplishment – and thanks to the Mi Max’s large display, there’s always more to enjoy. In fact, something I truly grew to appreciate with the device was consuming media – watching YouTube videos at full HD was a treat in a device that sits neatly between my two hands and glided throughout content libraries streamed from the server on my home computer.
Of course, one of the major benefits of a larger smartphone is the fact that you can cram in a massive battery. While this is smaller than you might expect – at ‘only’ 4850mAh – the fact of the matter is that the Mi Max is up for just about anything for days at a time.
In a video loop test, the Mi Max lasted for upwards of 20 hours on a single charge – and the fact that Xiaomi have bundled a 10W charger with the device speeds up the charging process. This is a phone which you won’t need to tote a battery pack for – and that’s good news, because you probably wouldn’t be able to fit one in your pocket anyway.
The Mi Max has a fortunate pedigree when it comes to cameras, and this is a phablet which doesn’t disappoint. If you can get past the awkwardness of toting this outside and actively snapping something worthwhile, the device generally offers a good experience.
You’ll have to battle past some over-sharpening while focussing the primary camera, which tends to cause jagged edges in some photos. As a consequence, detail is generally plentiful when this is controlled. Colours can easily wash out in broad daylight, leaving this best suited for adventures at golden hour.
The ability to record 4K video is welcome, as you’ll more than likely watch them over-and-over again on the Mi Max’s large display. While video quality is great even in low-light, the same can’t be said of stills.
The front-facing camera offers a decent way to get your selfies in, but don’t expect award-winning quality. There’s an odd amount of barrel distortion here which will compromise the shape of your face – leaving you with a wider chin and slimmer forehead than is actually true.
The Xiaomi Mi Max is a difficult smartphone to recommend. With a price range that slides from R4000-R5000 ZAR at retail, the Mi Max isn’t an overly expensive offering – but it feels somewhat of an unfocused one.
For consumers looking to get a media-consumption device or a travel-friendly smartphone/tablet hybrid, the Mi Max makes a lot of sense; it’s a smartphone that can handle a wide variety of tasks and sits in-between two worlds.
Great performance, a massive battery, and two above-average cameras complete an offering that falls somewhat short thanks to its mixed identity. I’m left to feel that had Xiaomi integrated a stylus, the Mi Max could have been a winning proposition.
Instead, the Mi Max is left as somewhat of a curiosity in an aisle of competing devices which are comparatively more capable. While one might be hard pressed to find a phablet that’s a direct competitor in South Africa, the fact remains that there are plenty of more focused smartphones and tablets to choose from.
Let’s wrap up. The Mi Max gets a number of things right; great performance and battery life come together to solve two areas most consumers will take into account when choosing their next phone.
However, this isn’t a device for everyone – its odd size, lack of expanded functionality, and general lack of identity leave this as a phone which will probably be a supplementary purchase for most consumers.
Is bigger always better? It depends on who you ask.
What are your thoughts on our Xiaomi Mi Max review? Be sure to let us know in the comments below!